STATESBORO, Ga. (AP) — Nearly two years after a banker who vanished was wrongly declared dead, he was sentenced Tuesday to 30 years in prison as he faced angry investors who lost millions of dollars entrusted to the former preacher who turned his persuasive powers into a career as an investment adviser.
Aubrey Lee Price, 48, fled southeast Georgia in summer 2012 after committing acts of fraud that consumed most of the $40 million he raised from 115 clients and left the small Montgomery Bank & Trust, where Price served as a bank director, depleted of its assets and reserves. The bank closed several weeks later.
Price was captured alive in a traffic stop near the Georgia coast in December 2013 and months later pleaded guilty to three federal fraud counts, saying he lied to clients and gave them phony financial statements to cover his tracks as he lost their money in speculative trading and other high-risk investments.
Back in court for sentencing Tuesday, Price gave a rambling 40-minute speech that blamed the bank's managers and others for financial losses that he said he tried to fix by making bad investments. Price sidestepped the year-and-a-half he spent as a fugitive and asked those he'd betrayed to trust him to get their money back.
"I understand the pain these people feel. I understand their bitterness and their anger," Price said. "In prison or wherever I am, I will find a way to make restitution for my debts."
Mary Jo Peters wasn't buying it. The former Delta Air Lines worker took the witness stand during Price's sentencing, saying she invested all her retirement savings with Price and lost every penny. After Price vanished, she sold her furniture, appliances, clothing and even plants in her yard in a desperate effort to avoid losing her home. Peters said she now works two jobs to pay her bills.
"I'm glad he's not out there able to do it to someone else," said Peters, who declined to say how much money she invested with Price. "But you don't feel any justice or closure, because I'm still struggling to make ends meet."
Michael Smith, who recalled Price coming to dinner at his home and leading a prayer before each meal, said he lost more than $894,000. He applauded Judge B. Avant Edenfield's sentence as just, but added, "I don't think we'll ever see a dime."
Price's sentence requires him to pay back investors as best he can, though the exact sum remains unclear. Prosecutors said Tuesday the latest estimate was more than $45 million. A federal receiver appointed by the courts to recoup assets says Price has been cooperating.
The receiver reported July 30 that about $3.3 million had been collected, but that includes $1.8 million in life insurance payments that the insurers are trying to take back.
Price insisted he's as broke as his former clients. Prosecutor Brian Rafferty said there's no evidence he pocketed any of his victims' money.
"The reason he's here is his own arrogance, his own pride prevented him from admitting, then or now, that he just wasn't very good" at investing, Rafferty said
Meanwhile, Price's wife and children sent letters to the judge asking for mercy, though none could explain his actions. When he vanished in June 2012, Price left his family and others long letters that strongly hinted he planned to commit suicide by drowning himself. He was last seen boarding a ferry in Florida. It was Price's wife who got a Florida judge to declare him dead in December 2012.
Rebekah Price wrote that her husband of 23 years was dragged down by a deep depression in 2011, after he was involved in purchasing the Montgomery Bank & Trust.
"The strong, secure man that I knew became very fragile and emotional," Price's wife wrote. "... I cannot explain why he made the choices he did, but I know that he was under more stress than anyone I had ever seen."
John Robert Anderson, a Baptist minister, said he first came to know Price as a talented youth pastor his church hired in 1989. Price told the judge it was a decade later that he became an investment adviser, though his family warned him dabbling with Wall Street would be "the start of my road to hell."